Baggs runs out of blags as Chris and Stella reach The Apprentice final

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The weekly grind of team-based tasks ends as The Apprentice reaches its penultimate episode. Which means the dreaded interviews and the return – for one night only! – of the national treasure that is Margaret Mountford.

After a day of waterboarding and one-to-one interviews which made the Spanish Inquisition look like a fireside chat with Michael Parkinson, the last five were whittled down to our two finalists: Chris Bates and Stella English, who will go head-to-head in Sunday’s finale.

Meet the interviewers

Margaret Mountford returns! (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Alan Watts – A commercial litigation specialist with the law firm Herbert Smith, who has previously represented Lord Sugar.

Bordan Tkachuk – Chief executive of IT firm Viglen, of which Sugar was formerly chairman.

Claude Littner – Sugar’s global trouble-shooter. A bit like John Harvey-Jones, but with less hair. Formerly chief executive of both Amstrad International and Tottenham Hotspur football club, now chairman of Viglen.

Margaret Mountford – Formerly a lawyer with Herbert Smith before becoming a non-executive director of Amstrad. Owner of the most sardonically expressive eyebrows since Roger Moore.

A good interview

In the real world, there are a number of basic rules which any competent candidate should adhere to if they want to make a good impression at a job interview. These include:

  • Have a basic working knowledge of the company you are applying to join.
  • Embellishing your CV is one thing, but downright lying is a no-no.
  • Be confident, but not arrogant.
  • Don’t alienate the interviewer.

Of course, The Apprentice isn’t the real world, so candidates should – and frequently do – ignore any or all of the above. It certainly worked for Lee McQueen, who won in season four despite lying about his time at university.

So, let’s see how our final five fared, shall we? Here are their individual highlights lowlights.

Chris Bates

Mister Monotone. So called because of his dreary delivery, Chris is nonetheless intelligent, articulate and, unusually for an Apprentice candidate, concise.

Chris is on the receiving end of an early savaging from our Margaret, who sarcastically addresses him as “the outstanding theology scholar” because he claimed to be “revered” on his application form. She goes on to ask if he is fixated with his academic results, to which he replies:

The idea of being able to brag about your achievements – it doesn’t really mean that much to me.

Oh dear. People who, unprompted, use words like ‘brag’ are the sort of people to whom it matters a great deal, a fact which Margaret quickly notes.

Claude quizzes him about his degree, where he started studying Law but then switched to Politics and American Studies. Claude suggests that completing a Law degree might have been a vaulable business qualification, and Chris missteps somewhat when he defends himself by saying “I”m actually not so sure that it is” – forgetting that both Margaret and Alan are lawyers. D’oh!

Claude sums up Chris’s skittish CV – he quit his job at an investment bank after less than a year – as follows:

You looks to me a bit like a quitter. You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a quitter.

Which, to my mind, makes him perfect material to be Sugar’s Apprentice, given that none of the previous five winners have made it past two years so far.

Overall, though, Chris stands up well under fire. It’s a good performance.

Jamie Lester

Back-Seat Driver Man. To the public, an amiable salesman with a cheeky grin. To his teammates, a constant critic who will tell you what a bad job you’re doing, then tell the camera what a bad job you’re doing.

Again, the opening salvo comes from Margaret:

If I asked “what is the most interesting thing about you?”: I own three properties in the UK, two in Cyprus and a Porsche, all before the age of 25. Did I mention I have a third nipple. Yes, you’re laughing. I’m not. One or two pages later on: “what’s the worst lie you’ve ever told”? That I have a third nipple. Is that supposed to make me laugh? Think of a word that applies to that response. Puerile.

She establishes that he blames his parents for his poor academic record, saying they didn’t push him hard enough. And he later accuses his business partner of not pulling his weight. As Bordan puts it, commenting on his self-proclaimed sales ability:

So you could sell, what, ice to Eskimos presumably? But not property to Cypriots?

We have seen this pattern of Jamie pointing the finger at other people repeatedly during the process. In all his interviews, he struggles to project himself either positively or confidently. That lopsided cheeky chappy grin of his doesn’t cut the ice with any of his interviewers. However, at least we get one more Jamie-ism out of him when he tells Margaret:

I am a key cog in a wheel.

How many diameters in width is that, though?

Joanna Riley

The Cleaner. A hard-working grafter (she owns her own cleaning company), with strong sales skills and a fiery temper.

Bordan offers up a simple dolly ball for Joanna, asking her about her knowledge of Sugar’s business empire. Inexplicably, though, she is utterly flustered, plays and misses, and down goes middle stump. She thinks he doesn’t have Amsair any more (he does), assumes he still has Amstrad (he doesn’t), and then when asked to name any other companies Sugar has, her response is:

[…] * silence * […]

The pause is so long – 11 excruciating seconds – that it is actually edited down in the broadcast version.

Claude takes her to task for saying that her cleaning business “just gets me by”, saying that it doesn’t sound very aspirational, and he’s right. Jo talks herself down – being both too honest and too modest for her own good – and comes across as being a little naive overall.

In the end, it is Claude who provides the rousing speech for her:

You started a business. That’s enterprising – good for you! Not many people have got the gumption, the ability, the strength of character to do that. So having done that it’s ridiculous that you’re now saying I don’t want to grow it. That’s a really great shame, a great shame.

Coming from Joanna, those words would have been a powerful argument in her favour. But coming from one of her interviewers, it reads more like an epitaph.

Stella English

Ice Queen. Cool, calm, collected – and apparently “too corporate” according to her rivals. Only on The Apprentice could a professional demeanour be considered a weakness!

Stella had endured a couple of shaky weeks, but the interview environment sees her back on relatively safe ground, and it should come as little surprise that she acquits herself well. So well, in fact, that we get to see hardly any of her interviews – a positive sign.

Indeed, the closest we get to anyone rattling her cage is when Claude ventures:

Having devoted ten years to banking, isn’t it a bit late to decide now you’re going to have a completely new career?

And Alan tries:

You are obviously a very skilled, a very qualified person at managing things, organising things. But in actual fact you’re just a very, very, very good PA.

In both cases she stands her ground politely but firmly, and delivers polished, professional and positive responses. Most unusual, in Apprentice terms.

To borrow the title of a film, I think it’s safe to say this is the week Stella got her groove back.

Stuart Blags Baggs

Bears a striking resemblance to Syndrome, the super-villain from The Incredibles. Has similar delusions of grandeur, but has made up for it so far with the gift of the gab and a million comedy soundbites.

If you are a sports fan of a certain age, you will probably remember the infamous WBA World Heavyweight title rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson in 1997, during which Tyson bit the defending champion’s ear. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Stuart ‘The Brand’™ Baggs versus Margaret Mountford.

Stuart kicks off with a relatively harmless “Margaret, nice to meet you”, to which a steely-faced Margaret replies, eyebrows raised:

Would you normally address an interviewer in this position by their first name when you haven’t met?

The gloves are off. Poor Stuart doesn’t really know what’s hit him, but he ploughs on regardless:

In my head, even as we speak right now I’ve got literally hundreds of ideas floating around.

He then proceeds to describe a pet-tagging product which Margaret is convinced has already been invented. Me too.

Next up is a quick attempt at bullshit bingo:

I’m not going to make this a nine-to-five job. I’m going to work 24/7 for Lord Sugar.

To which Margaret jumps in to complete her winning line with a sarcastic:

And give it 110%, no doubt.

She knifed Stuart between the ribs and he didn’t even notice – now that’s clinical. We’ve missed you, Margaret!

Alan wastes no time eviscerating the Manxman:

You’re actually not very nice are you? You appear to be happy to do anything to further your career. You appear to have no ethics. You say that you’d be prepared to step on others. You say that the worst lie you’ve ever told was telling the media a rival was going bust. Not only is that dishonest but it’s defamatory as well.

Stuart’s response is to puff out his chest and claim “I am certainly a character of integrity.” Integrity? Hey, what’s a little libel between friends, eh?

Claude does not relent either:

“I’m Stuart Baggs the Brand?” What on earth are you talking about? You’re a 21-year-old kid. You’re not a brand … You’re not a big fish. You’re not even a fish.

Well, to be fair, Claude, he’s starting to puff a bit like a guppy.

Finally, it is in his exchange with Bordan where the story of Baggs the Blags™ finally begins to unravel:

It says here “I formed BlueWave Communications, a fully licensed telecoms operator on the Isle of Man.” I spoke to a certain gentleman who is the licensing and compliance officer of the Isle of Man government. He confirmed that BlueWave does not hold a licence for mobile or fixed communications. BlueWave only holds an ISP licence for broadband. Stuart, you’re blagging to me.

Okay, it’s not exactly Wikileaks, but Stuart’s response is to blag some more, pausing only to ask Bordan to remind him of his name. (A trivial detail!) As far as he is concerned, he is running a bona fide telecoms company:

That is a telecoms company. In my mind.

In Stuart’s mind, no doubt, he is also the next John D Rockefeller, Richard Branson and Sheikh Mansour all rolled into one. Only better. Bordan’s summation, however, is closer to the truth:

You’re bright, no question about it. I’m seeing a little bit of a blagger. You may have been able to blag some of the others but you haven’t blagged me.

After the interviews, a visibly drained Stuart declares:

I feel like I’ve gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. My head is spinning.

But he is still full enough of himself to declare:

There is nobody in this process like me.

Quite.

Boardroom Brutality™

No two ways about it, I have to upgrade the standard Boardroom Brouhaha™ to fully fledged Brutality.

To start with, Sugar gathers his four interviewers in the boardroom to review their findings. There is general support for Joanna, praising her tenacity in starting up her own business from nothing in difficult times. But Claude adds that “she’s running a business and what she needs to do now really is to develop that business”, and the others chip in about her lack of general business fundamentals such as finance.

Chris’s academic achievements are duly noted, but so is his lack of experience. Bordan says he found him monotonous, but Alan points out that what Chris actually says is quite sound. Nick Hewer hammers home the point:

That’s exactly the point. He drones on but actually he’s bright.

Margaret points out that he is fixated by his academic record and delivers the best line of the night:

I wouldn’t be surprised if he put his certificates in frames and his idea of a fun night is to sit and admire them.

Karren Brady astutely says of Jamie:

He lost his confidence and I think someone like Jamie relies wholly on his confidence and his personality.

Bordan highlights Jamie’s willingness to shift blame onto others:

I had a bit of a problem with him – his blame culture. When the pressure’s on it’s never him, it’s someone else.

The comments on Stella are a little mixed, but overall positive:

Claude: A determined individual. Strong personality. I’m not quite sure what role she’d fulfil.

Bordan: She’s good but she’s the admin queen.

Alan: She’s shown herself to be completely indispensable.

Karren: I actually found her to be a very professional woman who always gave a very good representation of herself.

Stuart, not surprisingly, engenders no small amount of debate, not least about his telecoms licence, but Alan sums it up best when he reiterates:

He seems quite prepared to say anything he needs to say to get what he wants … I think he actually gilds the lily quite a lot.

The interviewers leave, and the five candidates troop back in as Sugar summarises the discussion. Basically, Chris is academic, Stella corporate, Joanna naive, Jamie a blamer and Stuart a blagger.

Without any further preamble, Sugar then tears Stuart a new one:

My four advisers looked at me and said that you’re full of s***, basically. What annoys me more is that someone like Liz last week left the process. I don’t believe a word you say, Stuart. I’m annoyed with myself that you have been allowed to come this far through the process. Stuart, you are fired.

No “with regret”. No “you’ve done well to come this far”. The only thing missing is for Sugar to press the hidden button under the desk which opens the trapdoor under Stuart’s seat, depositing him into the shark-infested waters below. Instead, he gets to make the standard exit in the Taxi to Obscurity™, where he declares:

I’m feeling gutted naturally that I’ve been fired. I thought I was the perfect candidate for the job. It’s entirely unfair and maybe everyone’s had a complete lack of understanding about what I’m really about.

Oh really? I think everyone has a complete understanding of what you’re really about. Farewell, Stuart. You have been magnificent comedy value for 11 weeks, but I am afraid you will soon find that this week’s reality TV gold is next week’s rust. Baggs the Blags™ is no more.

Having fired Stuart out of the metaphorical cannon, it’s time to decide the fate of the remaining four. Sugar turns first to Jo:

With regret I have to say I can’t see where you can slot into the organisation. But you leave here with your head high, because you’re a prime example of someone who’s prepared to work hard and sling yourself into things. You’ve done very well.

He is trying to soften the blow, but Joanna is nonetheless reduced to tears and is rising from her chair before Sugar even says “with regret, you’re fired”. As she leaves, Jamie allows himself a little smirk – he clearly thinks he’s in the final.

Next to discover their fate, though, is Stella. Well, I suppose it’s a case of ‘ladies first’, isn’t it? There’s no dramatic pause and no mixing of words, because we already know what he’s going to say: Stella is in the final.

Which just leaves Chris versus Jamie. We’ve watched the preceding 55 minutes, so Jamie is the only person who is surprised when Sugar tells him he’s letting him go. And there we have it: it’s Chris and Stella.

In his Taxi to Obscurity™, Jamie is still suffering from a bit of hubris:

Because of the entrepreneurial flair I’ve shown in the past, I really thought that I was through to the final. I think I’ve got a huge amount to give so we’ll see what the future holds.

Joanna is more realistic, and seems to have gained some real confidence from her experience:

I feel really, really proud of myself that I’ve got this far. Before I was just Joanna the cleaner from Leicester, but now I’m most definitely Joanna the businesswoman from Leicester.

Stella - experienced, but is she creative enough? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)
Chris - creative but inexperienced (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Sugar made the right calls in this episode. Stuart was always a ticking time bomb. Jamie had lived the high life during the property boom but was clueless when the market crashed, exposing his reluctance to accept responsibility for anything negative. And, despite her tenacity and undoubted sales ability, Joanna’s naivety about how business works rendered her a liability in terms of being given a senior management position.

On balance, the right two are in the final. Both are intelligent and have had a professional approach to every task throughout, but other than that they are a study in contrasts. Chris is academic, inexperienced and has some creativity about him. Stella is business-smart, experienced and more of an organiser than a creator. Both have distinct strengths and weaknesses, and who wins will depend on exactly what Sugar wants in his Apprentice. Does he want the ideas man, Chris, who he can build a team around, or does he want the skilled operator, Stella, who can harness the ideas of others? We will find out on Sunday.

One job, now just two candidates. Lord Sugar’s search for his Apprentice is almost over.

Next episode: With the help of some familiar faces, the two finalists must create and a new alcoholic drink. Who will end up popping the champagne, and who will be cast out with nothing more than a can of Special Brew? From the preview, it appears that Stella will be teamed with Joanna, Christopher, Paloma and Melissa, while Chris will be backed by Jamie, Liz, Alex and (gasp!) Shibby. Never mind who wins the task – I wonder who got picked last?

A special episode, The Apprentice: Why I Fired Them, is on BBC1 tonight (Thursday) at 10.35pm. The final is on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm.

Rating: Episode 6.11 – 4.5/5

Link: BBC Apprentice home page

Previous episode reviews

Episode 6.01: Sausages

Episode 6.02: Beach accessory

Episode 6.03: Bakery

Assessing the final 12

Episode 6.04: Selling to trade

Episode 6.05: Fashion

Episode 6.06: Advertising

Episode 6.07: DVD

Would you employ any of the final 8?

Episode 6.08: Crisps

Episode 6.09: Discount buying

What can we learn from the fired candidates?

Episode 6.10: London Tours

Whatever happened to the previous Apprentice winners?

Season 1: Tim Campbell

Season 2: Michelle Dewberry

Season 3: Simon Ambrose

Season 4: Lee McQueen

Tomorrow: season 5 winner Yasmina Siadatan